Tag Archives: Harlan Coben

Indy bookstore longings

I’m currently filled with nostalgia, for something that was never quite mine, anyway.

I spent yesterday and today in Washington, D.C.  While there, I snuck away for an hour to Kramerbooks at Dupont Circle.  I’ve been there multiple times on various occasions in the last dozen years.  It’s that kind of eclectic bookstore that was pretty rare in the age of big-box-bookstores.  And if I saw my local Borders go bye-bye with a bit of a lump in my throat, walking up to the familiar neon sign was accompanied with an unexpected pang.

There are stacks of books.  Fiction, travel books, books about writing.  A business section.  The mystery shelves, of course.  The actual smell of piles of paper.  It reminds me of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver (LoDo).  It’s not slick, it’s comfy.   Kramerbooks has a whole standing bookshelf titled “Philosophy,”  so I called my husband to see if he had any suggestions – I wanted to buy my son a present, and he’s a philosophy major.  But, as my husband pointed out, it’s very difficult to buy a philosophy book for someone else, and he could get anything he wanted for himself.  On Amazon.  “Is there anything I can get for you?” I asked.  “Not really,” he said.

So that’s something that’s changed.  I’m used to calling people up from bookstores.  “They have a great Art section,” I said to Husband, by phone, the last time I was in Denver.  “Can I find something for you?  They have a big Cindy Sherman book.”

But of course, there’s nothing he was hankering for, nothing he had wanted but hadn’t been able to find.  Same for my younger son’s sheet music – he can get it all online.  What’s missing is the sense of discovery, the great find, the bringing home of offerings to others.  Maybe that’s what I miss.

But some things don’t change.  Kramerbooks is paired with a Cafe and coffeebar, so I was able to sit with a cup of coffee and a piece of peach cobbler while I read my new book.  Yes, the Best American Mystery Stories of 2011 are out.  Editor: Harlan Coben.  Series editor:  Otto Penzler.  So, nostalgia aside, it’s all good.

Lunchbox offbase on Edgar picks this year

The Mystery Writers of America has announced the Edgar Award winners!  And unlike last year, where my taste totally reflected the taste of the judges… we are not in synch.  In fact, 180 degrees difference.

I picked Tana French’s Faithful Place for Best Novel.  MWA picked Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist.   I placed this one… dead last in the running.  Augh.  A revisit of my review reveals that I still agree with my comments.   Hamilton is a great author – I’ve loved his previous series – and The Lock Artist was very creative and a fun read, but I didn’t find it to be my preference.

Similarly, for Best First Novel, my pick was Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston.  MWA’s choice: Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva.  Again, this book was at the bottom of my list.  I looked back over my review.  Yep, still agree with it.  The book has sheer verve going for it, but it’s not as edgy as I prefer.

Bottom line:  If you haven’t read all the nominees, do so!  They’re all excellent and well worth your time.  You can’t go wrong with the established authors nominated for Best Novel, including Tana French, Harlen Coben, Tom Franklin, Timothy Hallinan and Laura Lippman.

For the debut novels, you may find that Rogue Island is your favorite, or perhaps the humor and quirky characterizations of David Gordon’s The Serialist will float your boat.  All five nominees are an opportunity to expand your “must read” list.

My final take on being so wrong?  No biggie.  It’s like the Oscars.  “Predict the Oscars” contests reward those critics who are best are predicting what nominees will be selected by the Oscar voters.  I am more like the critics who pen “who should win” columns.  But even with that perspective, this undertaking is all very subjective! Still, it’s terrifically fun, so 2012 will find me doing the same thing.  Maybe I’ll even go to the ceremony!

Edgar Rankings: Who the heck is Poke Rafferty?

I had never read anything by Timothy Hallinan prior to my instantaneous purchase-by-Kindle of the Edgar-nominated The Queen of Patpong.  With nothing to hold in my hand – no blurb on the back of the book, no book jacket bio – I plunged into the the underbelly of Bangkok.  Bar girls, tough guys, and plenty of bought-and-sold.  In the first chapter, a predatory American circles and pulls in a 16-year-old bar girl, only to be stopped by a corrupt Thai policeman who is ready to let the girl go to certain torture and death – for a price.  Between the two of them, they scare the cr*p out of the girl, who takes off in a big hurry for the farm she left behind.  In the final paragraphs, it becomes obvious that the policeman and the tall American are in cahoots, with the goal of saving the girl.  And that was it.  I was hooked.

It turns out that this is the fourth Poke Rafferty novel, Poke being the tall American and Arthit his policeman friend.  Poke’s evidently a travel writer, although we don’t see much traveling or much writing in this book.  He’s married to a former bar girl, Rose, and they’ve adopted a 13-year-old named Miaow (but she wants to go by Mia).  Life gets exciting and scary when a man from Rose’s past – a seductive mercenary who has left a trail of murdered young women behind him – finds her again.  Fortunately, he’s the kind of sociopath who likes to play with his prey, because if he had just gone for the kill right off the bat, the book would have been maybe 50 pages long.

If you’re noticing, this is the fourth book out of the six nominated that hinges on action from the past.  If the trend continues and we end up six-for-six, that’ll really be something unusual.

For sheer engagement, The Queen of Patpong is tops.  The reader sees the love between Poke and Rose, the family the three of them have made together, and their friendship with Arthit.  The backstory is well-told and is doled out over time, ratcheting up the suspense.  By the time I was reading about Rose’s encounter with Howard Horner on the rocks – he has plans to kill her, but she outwits him – I couldn’t read fast enough.   It reminded me Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 – you know the astronauts survive, but you’re on the edge of your seat anyway.

Also good about the book – the bad guys were not just believable, but real, and the meta-message – that the U.S. government would protect black ops mercenaries who killed civilians for fun – was chilling, but in today’s world, also believable.

The downside to The Queen of Patpong is pretty minor:  if you haven’t read about these characters before, it takes a little catching up.   The world of Bangkok is not readily familiar, so that takes a little catching up, too.

This is quite a different novel, some mystery but mostly thriller, and Rose fills the pages.   It’s a tough call, but it doesn’t quite edge out Laura Lippman’s book, although it’s definitely ahead of Harlan Coben’s Caught.   I “amazoned” Hallinan, and I see he has quite a backlist… guess I know what I’ll be reading when the Edgar countdown is over!

Lunchbox rankings for Best Novel:

  1. I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman
  2. The Queen of Patpong – Timothy Hallinan
  3. Caught – Harlan Coben
  4. The Lock Artist – Steve Hamilton

Coben’s Caught Enters the Running

Harlan Coben’s a best-selling author, and deservedly so.  I started reading his Myron Bolitar series (a frequently-funny series featuring a short-time pro basketball player turned sports agent) with Deal Breaker in the mid-90s.  Myron’s best friend is Windsor Horne Lockwood III… a very handy guy to know when you need an incredibly rich, incredibly connected, and basically all-around incredible guy.  Win shows up in Caught in a minor role – a cameo, if you will.

Coben’s also a prolific producer of standalone thrillers, and Caught is a good example of the bunch.  It’s told from multiple perspectives, but the whole plot hinges on a “caught on camera” reality TV show that purports to reveal pedophiles.  You’ve seen the shows… the guys are amazingly stupid, showing up with a pocket full of condoms and a six-pack under one arm for a rendezvous with a 13-year-old girl in her parents’ hot tub, only to be greeted by a reporter in a flashy suit with a camera crew.  The guy never runs for the hills, they always stick around to explain themselves before being handcuffed and shoved into the back of a police car.

Only in this case, the predator who is caught, Dan Mercer, seems like a true-blue guy.  There are some questions about his past  – it’s a little murky – but no warning signs, ever, even though the case seems all locked up.  Even cynical reporter Wendy Tynes is beginning to have her doubts when he is suddenly murdered – right in front of her eyes – by a masked man she’s sure is the father of one of  Mercer’s victims.

But Wendy’s a better investigative journalist than her schlock-TV producers know, and as she pulls on the threads that make up the evidence against Mercer, she finds they unravel… and in the unravelling, she uncovers an alarming pattern: Mercer is just one of a group of college room-mates whose professional lives have been ruined, often by no more than internet-chat-room rumors and innuendo.

It all goes back to a college prank gone awry, with tragic consequences. (If you’re paying attention, that makes three of the six Edgar-nominated novels that include a long-ago crime as a key plot point.)

Excellent things about this novel:   Twisty plot and I didn’t figure it out in advance (which I frequently do!).  Believable single mom main character with great mother-son interaction.

Not so great:  Backstory with tragically hidden-from-life character seemed a little gothic to me.  Especially with a first-person prologue, I never felt that Mercer was dead and kept expecting him to pop back up… which, of course, he did.

Still, Coben’s a skilled writer and Caught stacks up well.

Here’s the Lunchbox Ranking:

  1. I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman
  2. Caught – Harlen Coben
  3. The Lock Artist – Steve Hamilton

Linwood Barclay’s Debut Mystery a Madcap Ride

While I was in NYC, the New York Times had a review of the new Harlan Coben book (Caught) which compared Coben to thriller writer Linwood Barclay (specifically his novel Never Look Away).  While vacationing, I read the two books back to back.  But I’ll have to keep you in suspense regarding my take on that argument.   I’ve assembled you here today so we can all hail Linwood Barclay’s whackier side.

I’m not tipping my hand when I say that I enjoyed Barclay’s thriller enough to visit the Oak Park Public Library website and put all his previously published books on hold.  I went and picked them up.  Looking them over, it was like the kid’s matching game “which of these things is not like the other?  Which of these things doesn’t belong?”  Instead of a fear-inspiring title, it was quirky.  Instead of tense, edgy, cover art… it was sort of cartoon-y.  An even bigger tipoff:  a promo line that read “life in the suburbs can be murder.”

Bad Move is hilarious.  The premise is this:  science fiction writer Zachary Walker is on the OCD side when it comes to safety, in the best of circumstances.  Now that he has a wife and a growing family, his urban life (homeless people, drugs, hookers, etc.) seems just too fraught with potential disaster.  So the Walkers sell their nicely appreciated home and move to the suburbs.  But the neatly manicured lawns and the freshly painted new construction homes just put a bright face on the slimy underbelly of the community.   A murdered conservationist, crooked builder, indoor pot farming neighbor, and attractive accountant/dominatrix throw one surprise after another Zach’s way.

What makes it work is the fresh and funny protagonist.  Who but Zach Walker would get so worked up about his wife leaving his keys in the door that he’d try to teach her a lesson by surreptitiously moving her car down the block?  In his mind, Sarah’s response would be to slap her hand to her forehead, say “Oh, no!  I am so stupid!  I never should have left my keys where anyone could take them!  Now they have not only stolen my car, but perhaps will return later and murder my family in our sleep!”  (Needless to say, this is not actual dialogue from the book, I’m making it up to illustrate the point.) When Zach steps forward to admit that there is no actual danger, she will be relieved and grateful, and will have learned a valuable lesson.

What really happens?  She sees the car is gone, calls the police, and gets mad as hell when she realizes the whole thing is a stunt.  Poor Zach.  Life in his mind is so much more satisfying than real life.

That’s why there’s a satisfying bit of karma when Zach snatches what he thinks is his wife’s purse from their shopping cart, tucking it into the trunk of their car and smugly imagining her chagrined admission of how wrong she was and how right he is.   But Sarah’s already learned that lesson, and is wearing a fanny pack.  It’s not her purse.  Zach’s holier than thou purse-snatching leads to the discovery of counterfeit money, pornographic pictures, and yet another body.

This is the first book in a series featuring Zachary Walker – and it’s well-worth reading.  It puts me in mind of Parnell Hall’s Stanley Hastings books (about the world’s most inept private investigator), Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr (professional burglar extraordinaire) series, and of course, the as-yet unpublished works of Karen Burgess (the Paula Berger series about a washed-up actress).  Barclay is a former journalist, married 30+ years, and father to two – and he mines his experiences to great effect in Bad Move.

My plan:  to read the books in order and let you know my related thoughts.  I’m looking forward to exploring Barclay’s transition from humorous mystery to thriller writer.

NYC Bookstores Specialize in Mystery

Like a lot of places, New York City doesn’t have as many bookstores as it used to have.  On the other hand, the number of Starbucks outlets has increased exponentially in the last ten years.  And it continues to have plenty of guys selling handbags and watches, as well as helpful folks wanting to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to go to a comedy club.

Partners & Crime, Greenwich Village

But mystery lovers who make an effort will be rewarded.  A short subway ride to Greenwich Village will bring you to the doorstep of Partners & Crime.  What’s great about this bookstore is the many hand-lettered signs, helping you find the books you’ll most enjoy reading.  I discovered a Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News?, that I am currently enjoying.  Atkinson’s book interweaves several perspectives and backstories in a way that reminds me that there’s more to mysteries than clomping through a chronology in first person.  (I can diss this style because that’s what I do.)  Good News is out in paperback and a heck of a bargain, so go buy it.  I also bought a thriller, Close-Up, by Esther Verhoef and translated from the Dutch.  I read a couple of chapters in the store to be sure, and its got me hooked already.   Margot’s just getting over a rough break-up when she meets a mesmerizing man… he opens new doors for her, she’s spreading her wings.  Only the reader suspects he’s a killer.  But is he?

The Mysterious Bookshop, TribecaAlso worth visiting is Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, especially when accompanied by lunch at the Kitchenette, a thrift store stop, and less than 30 minutes in line at the TKTS booth to snag two tickets to Billy Elliott at half-price.  I was lured into a signed copy of Caught by Harlan Coben (always a favorite) as well as Linwood Barclay‘s Never Look Away, after reading a comparison of the two books in today’s New York Times.  I’ve read both authors before and am interested in reading them back to back.

The Mysterious Bookshop’s allure is burnished by its owner, Otto Penzler, well-known on the mystery scene for decades and editor of the Best American Mystery Stories and the Best American Crime Writing series for years.  So well-known is he that he was tapped to write Robert B. Parker’s obituary in Time magazine.

Both mystery bookstores are comfortable, ready for browsing, and feature comfortable chairs and nearby coffee shops.  Both are stuffed to the gills with autographed books.  And both are well-worth visiting, so bring your credit cards and a canvas bookbag!

Preorder, anyone?

I was on Borders website to see if the new Ian Rankin book is out yet – my memory is that it’s coming out this month – and the site was encouraging me to “preorder now!”  I’m trying to figure out why anyone would do this.  Will there not be enough copies to go around?

So I took a look at the top 50 preorders.  Vampires (and that ilk) galore.  James Patterson, the Wimpy Kid, and movies on DVD.    Kitty Kelly has a biography of Oprah coming out and Giada de Laurentis has a new cookbook which will turn you into a hot Italian babe in the kitchen.  (I wish!)

Of interest to me:  Harlan Coben’s Caught, Lisa Scottoline’s Think Twice, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

Caught is a stand-alone mystery featuring a missing high school girl and the intrepid reporter who investigates the case.  Coben’s books are usually engrossing and energizing, and there’s usually a rich vein of humor.  I’m not positive, but I think this may be his first female protagonist, so it will be great to see how well he does with that challenge.  It’s a must-read for me.  Would I pre-order?  No.

How about Think Twice?  I’ve enjoyed Scottoline’s Bennie Rosato series, and this one looks like a humdinger:  her twin sister, Alice, drugs her and leaves her for dead.  Bennie’s buried alive.  And Alice is living her life.  What a great set-up… although it might be hard to live up to the promise of the premise.  Would I pre-order?  No.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the third in Stieg Larsson’s series featuring Lisbeth Salander, the first being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the second, The Girl Who Played with Fire.  These books have taken America by storm, fueled by the knowledge that Larsson, who intended to write ten books in the series, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50.  Therefore, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the final book.  (Although his long-time companion has the laptop which contains the partially completed manuscript for book #4.)  Lisbeth is both violated and violent, and her goal in this book is to clear her name and get revenge against those who used her so miserably in her previous books.  Plus, Mikael Blomquist is back.  Would I preorder?  Possibly.

And what about that Ian Rankin book I was looking for?  I can’t find it.  Must be confused!  Please advise.